I hope y’all are ready for another installment of our short story series. I need to think of a title for it, but for now let just call it “Jen’s Secret”. If you missed Part 1, you can check it out here.
My legs feel like lead. I struggle to pull myself from the deep sleep I so desperately needed. Surviving on four hours a night is catching up to me big time. A spring from the thin sleeper sofa mattress juts into my hip, but still, I don’t want to get up. What I wouldn’t give for five more minutes of peace.
I gingerly disentangle myself from Sienna, her moist skin sticking to mine as I slide my arm out from under her. Why do children sweat so much when they sleep? She sighs, and rolls over towards her sister, automatically seeking the comfort of another warm body. My youngest has always been needy. I’m pretty sure it’s my fault. Ever since she was born, things have been tough. Working odd jobs and keeping crazy hours doesn’t allow me to spend much time with her. I may not have a college degree, but I work with kids every day and I know how important it is for them to have a secure attachment and a routine.
I also know how important it is for them to have a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs.
Which is why I’m tiptoeing around my converted garage apartment, trying to get ready for my overnight shift at Wal-Mart, without waking up my kids. I stub my toe on the metal bar at the bottom of the bed and puff out a breath of air from the pain, stifling a groan. I’m inspecting my foot for damage when I hear a soft whisper, “Ma? You OK?”
Theresa’s face is illuminated by a halo of warmth from Mrs. Posada’s back porch light. She’s half sitting up, resting on her elbows, a look of concern etched across her pretty face. I reassure her, “I’m fine, baby. Go back to sleep.”
“I told you to get a night-light.”
She had, because she’s the kind of little girl who thinks far too much about practical things. “I know. I’ll pick one up from work tonight.”
“And some wood glue for my project?”
Shoot! I’d forgotten she was supposed to build one of the California missions. “Yeah, that too.”
She settles back onto the bed, but a few seconds later, she announces, “Mrs. Stevenson said that a chronic lack of sleep increases a person’s risk for heart attack, stroke and a lot of other illnesses.”
I finish pulling a navy blue polo shirt over my head, my shoulders slumping. My daughter shouldn’t be concerning herself with things like that, and obviously her teacher, Mrs. Stevenson, doesn’t have kids of her own. Otherwise, she would know that a lack of sleep is part of the parental job description. “I’m healthy as a horse. Now, Go. To. Sleep.”
She’s silent, so that’s a start. I finish getting ready, then kiss each child on her forehead. Theresa’s only pretending to be asleep, so I pat her cheek, and she looks up at me solemnly. She’s so serious, this kid. I tap her nose, “Tomorrow’s Saturday. I promise I’ll sleep in. OK?”
I grab the monitor and set the alarm on my way out. Like clockwork, Mrs. Posada opens her back door, and takes the monitor. She hands me a travel mug of coffee, “You’re sure you don’t want to borrow my car?” she asks, her lilting accent rolling the R’s.
“No, thanks.” Just the thought of getting behind the wheel of a car makes my throat dry.
“You know I would at least give you a ride to the bus…but the girls.”
“I know, Mrs. Posada. You watching them is more than enough. Listen, I’ll see you in the morning.”
I smile and head down the long drive way towards the street. If I time it just right, I’ll get to the bus stop moments before the bus arrives, decreasing the time I have to sit and wait. Hopefully, no one will harass me tonight, and I can get to work without incident.
Even as I stock the shelves, I can’t stop thinking about Mrs. Posada’s offer to drive her car occasionally. It’s not the first time Mrs. Posada has made such an offer. She even said I could buy her deceased husband’s car, on time, when we first moved in. It would be so much safer than walking the streets at all hours of the night and early morning. I don’t mind catching the bus in the daytime with the girls. By myself at night is another question. But, I can’t drive again. The thought of it is terrifying.
My pulse increases and my hands shake as I line up packages of Oreos. I can’t believe I even allowed myself to go there while I’m at work. I concentrate on filling the shelves in front of me, hoping to calm myself.
“Hey, you all right?”
I look over my shoulder at Jared, one of my co-workers. “I’m fine,” the lie slips out haltingly.
He glances at my trembling hands, then looks aways when he sees me noticing. “You need a minute?”
I expect him to walk away and leave me alone. Instead, he gestures for me to follow him. I glance at my cart full of go-backs, then at the aisle void of people. I guess I’ve got a minute to see what he’s up to.
I follow him to the warehouse area at the back of the store, past towers of metal shelves, boxes and pallets wrapped in shrink-wrap. He turns down a narrow passage way, which leads to a door. When he opens it, I see an office of sorts. There’s a beat up old desk, along with a smattering of chairs.
“You can chill here for a while. If anybody asks, I’ll tell them you’re picking up some stuff from the warehouse.”
I sink onto one of the chairs. “Thanks.”
I nod, and put my hands under my thighs.
He exits without another word, and for the first time in months, I’m alone. Tears well up in my chest and leak from my eyes. I’m so tired. My chest and face heat from the effort of holding it all in. Finally, I give up and let it all out, my body hiccupping from the force of my sobs.
I don’t know if I can do this anymore. Should I turn myself in? What will happen to my kids if I do? I have to pull it together. That little boy is dead, and there’s nothing I can do to bring him back. There’s a mother out there. Someone like me, who loved that child with all her heart. And she’ll never hold him again. Never see him grow up. Never know what animal ran him over and kept driving…Never see justice served.
What kind of person does that? What kind of person am I?
Whoa. Look, I’ma be honest and say even I didn’t see that coming! I know this installment may not seem all that inspirational, but stick with me and it will be. What do you think about Jen’s secret so far? Did you see that coming? Does it fit with what you thought of Jen and her story after the first installment of this short story series?
© Faith Simone 2018
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